“Use my bed,” Zelda said. “I want to sleep in the wet spot.”
Alexandria stared at her younger sister for a moment and then grabbed my hand and led me upstairs to Zelda’s bedroom, where she attended to my needs with the lights off and her eyes closed.
My cousin and I had played doctor and gone skinny dipping together throughout our childhood, but nothing came of it until after Uncle Mort’s still exploded. The fireball instantly killed him, melted off half my face, and scarred a significant portion of my left side. Back then, my father was serving time for shooting a revenuer, and my mama and my Aunt Sara were working twelve-hour overnight shifts at the cotton mill. So, after I was released from the hospital, they left Alexandria to watch her little sister and care for me. And Alexandria did, taking advantage of my incapacitation to satisfy her curiosity about the sins of the flesh.
Afterward, as we lay in the dark without speaking, the doorbell rang. A moment later, Zelda yelled up the stairs. “It’s Goodwin.”
“Shit,” my cousin muttered. Then she yelled back, “Stall him.”
We quickly dressed. After I retrieved the prophylactic and its wrapper, Alexandria headed down the front stairs and I slipped down the back.
Zelda was standing by the kitchen door. She asked, “Is it wet?”
She smiled as she opened the door for me.
Outside, I shoved the prophylactic into the garbage can, careful not to make unnecessary noise. Then I climbed into the Ford my father and uncle had modified for running ’shine, released the parking brake, and rolled downhill in the dark until I was far enough away from Aunt Sarah’s house to safely turn on the lights, key the ignition, and drive home.
* * *
The next afternoon I took Zelda to town with me to do a little shopping. While people stared at me—or pretended not to stare at me—she pocketed a few items. The first time she did it, nearly a year after my release from the hospital, she took a chocolate bar, and it was half-melted by the time she pulled it from her underwear and showed me what she’d done. As Zelda grew older, we perfected our technique and now often left home with a shopping list. That day we shopped for eyeliner, earrings for Zelda’s newly pierced ears, and prophylactics for my time with Alexandria.
“Goodwin’s sweet on my sister,” Zelda told me on the way home. “He don’t know about you and her.”
“And you’d best not tell him,” I insisted. I didn’t know if what I was telling Zelda was for my own good or for Alexandria’s, but it didn’t matter. That Zelda knew about us at all was the result of her arriving home unexpectedly two years earlier. She caught me limping naked into their bathroom and Alexandria sprawled across her bed, and by then Zelda was old enough to understand what that meant.
Zelda didn’t respond to what I’d told her. Instead, she showed me the ten-pack of prophylactics she’d boosted from the drug store and said, “They’re ribbed.”
* * *
My only work experience had been helping Uncle Mort with the still, so my job prospects were limited when I was finally old enough to seek a real job. Martha Kukendahl hired me to wash dishes at the Roadside Inn, but she insisted I enter and exit through the restaurant’s kitchen door and that I never show my face in the dining room.
“Jedediah!” she said when I stepped through the back door a few days after my shopping trip with Zelda. “You’re late.”
I glanced at my watched. “Two minutes.”
“Third time this month,” she said. “If you weren’t Gladys Wright’s kid, I would have fired you already, you ugly little matchstick.”
I held my tongue because I needed the job, which I only had because Martha felt she owed my mama for something that happened when they were teenagers, something neither of them ever spoke about. With my father in prison, with my uncle in a grave, and without the money we’d once earned from their still, there just wasn’t enough money coming into the house to pay our bills without me working. Besides, Goodwin was Martha’s son.
“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “I’ll do better.”
The Roadside Inn did good business—a combination of locals and people traveling through—and I scrubbed dishware from the moment I arrived until well past closing time, when I helped Isaiah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stovetops and prepare the kitchen for breakfast the next morning.
I was near worn out by the time I arrived at Aunt Sarah’s house that evening, but Alexandria was waiting up for me. She took my hand and led me up the stairs to her bedroom, where she satisfied both our needs in near darkness.
“How do you do it?” I asked when she finished. “No one else even wants to look at me.”
“I close my eyes and remember how handsome you used to be,” Alexandria said. “Those other girls only see you as you are now.”
She didn’t realize how much her answer hurt, but I didn’t tell her.
* * *
The following Saturday, Zelda and I went to town again. This time the shopping list included feminine products and cold cream and socks to replace the pair I had worn though. I also needed to stop at the drugstore to pick up a prescription for my mama. While we were working our way through the Woolworth’s, a couple of girls from school saw us. They lived on the other side of the tracks, where the bankers and the mill owners lived, and they made rude comments under their breath, just loud enough for us to get the gist of their comments without hearing the actual words.
“They’re laughing at you,” Zelda said.
“They always do.”
“Do you ever think of other girls, Jed?” Zelda asked. “Girls other than my sister?”
“I used to, but who would have me?”
“You might be surprised.”
We left Woolworth’s with the three items on our shopping list and had to visit the drugstore for the last item. Afterward, we drove down to the river, hung our legs over the side of the bridge, and shared a Coke that Zelda had taken while I paid for my mama’s prescription.
“Things just ain’t been the same since Daddy’s still blew up,” she said.
We’d never talked about that day, about the explosion that had taken her father’s life and nearly taken mine, and about how our families had fallen on hard times without the money that still brought in. “And it ain’t ever going to be the same,” I said. “Some things are better. Some things ain’t.”
She pondered that for a bit.
“Daddy used to beat mama something awful,” Zelda said. My daddy had been the one who put a stop to it most times, but when he shot that revenuer and went to prison, there wasn’t anybody left who could stop what Uncle Mort was doing to Aunt Sarah.
Or so we thought.
“You got your daddy’s car,” Zelda said. “You ever think of running ’shine for one of the other stills?”
“It’s been six years,” I said. I’d been fourteen and Zelda had been twelve. Since then, revenuers had shut down most of the stills, and the remaining few mostly provided small batches for local customers. “I don’t think there’s enough work for a driver.”
* * *
My mama and my aunt had to fend off the advances of the mill’s supervisors, ugly men who demanded personal favors, and they talked bad about the women who dropped to their knees in exchange for day shifts. They talked even worse about the husbands who turned a blind eye rather than jeopardize what was often their household’s only steady income.
“It ain’t worth it,” my mama told Aunt Sarah one night in our kitchen. I had stopped just outside the door to listen, something I did more often than they realized. “No matter what that man promised you, it ain’t worth it.”
“But I got two daughters,” Aunt Sarah said. “At least your boy can work, bring in some money.”
“Washing dishes,” my mama said. “That ain’t much of a job for a boy.”
“But it’s a job, a job he wouldn’t have if it weren’t for what you done for Martha all them years ago,” Aunt Sarah said. “It’s money ain’t coming into my house. We had enough money—more than enough money—before you—”
My mama hushed her. “You wasn’t okay with what Mort done to you, and Jimmy wasn’t around no more to stick up for you,” my mama said. “You be all right, just you wait and see. That Kukendahl boy, he’ll do right by Alexandria. I’ll see to that.”
I slipped away, not wanting to hear more about Goodwin and Alexandria. I knew he was sweet on her and that someday she would stop meeting my needs. But I surely didn’t need to listen to my mama and my aunt talk about it.
* * *
“Can I watch?” Zelda asked a few nights later.
We left the light on. Alexandria did things she didn’t usually do, as if she were performing for her little sister, and did it all without protection. We finished with her straddling me, and afterward, after Alexandria had left the bed and gone into the bathroom, Zelda crossed the room and let her fingers trace the scars on my face, an act more intimate than what her older sister and I had just done. When she finished, Zelda left me alone in her bedroom, listening to Alexandria shower, wondering what had just happened. I didn’t have much time to think because I soon heard a pounding on the front door, and Zelda called up the stairs to her sister, telling her she had a guest. I scrambled out of bed, grabbed my things, and hightailed it down the back stairs as quietly as I could.
I found Zelda waiting for me. She said, “You should see the look on your face.”
My face wasn’t all she could see. “Goodwin isn’t here, is he?”
My cousin shook her head.
“It isn’t funny,” I said. “What do you think’ll happen if he ever finds me here like this?”
“He won’t be none too happy.”
I pulled on my clothes. “What do you think will happen to your sister?”
Zelda shrugged. “She’d have to choose.”
I glared at her for a moment before stomping out of the house, climbing into the Ford, and leaving my cousins behind.
* * *
A few weeks later, my anger at Zelda had diminished enough that we took another shopping trip. At the grocery store she managed to tuck a couple of oranges into her bra, but the people at the drugstore had cottoned to our scheme. They watched her closer than they watched me, and I had to pay for the box of prophylactics I’d selected.
Afterward, we drove down to the river and hung our legs over the side of the bridge. We threw orange peels into the river far below and watched as the current sent them spinning away. We had almost finished when Zelda asked, “How come you never do this with Alexandria?”
Zelda looked at me. “You know, take her places,” she said. “Like this.”
“Things ain’t like that with your sister. She don’t want me for that. She’s got Goodwin.”
“She just uses you for one thing.” Zelda stuffed an orange slice in her mouth and bit. Juice dribbled down her chin.
“I ain’t the only one being used,” I said.
Zelda put her hand on my thigh and looked at me in a way I’d never seen before. Uncomfortable, I threw the last of my orange into the river and pushed myself to my feet. “I need to get you home so I can go to work.”
* * *
After leaving Zelda at Aunt Sarah’s house, I continued on to mine. I needed to change shirts before I went to the restaurant, and when I came back downstairs, I heard my mama and her sister talking in the kitchen. They obviously didn’t know I was there, and I listened from outside the kitchen door.
“Your boy ain’t right,” Aunt Sarah said. “He ain’t been right since—”
“He wasn’t supposed to be there,” my mama said. “He was supposed to be in school.”
I had never stopped to wonder how my mama had reached the still so quickly after the explosion. That she was nearby because she had arranged for it to happen had never crossed my mind. I listened to her explain to Aunt Sarah how she had rigged the still, thinking it would blow Uncle Mort to kingdom come and nobody would be the wiser. She was getting back at him for what he had done to daddy and what he was still doing to his own family. When she found me half toasted by the explosion, she drove daddy’s Ford hell bent for leather down the mountain to the nearest hospital, where the doctors did their best to patch me up.
“I know you done it for me and the girls,” Aust Sarah said, “but it ain’t my fault you blew up your own kid.”
I couldn’t listen to any more. I didn’t want to listen to any more.
* * *
“You’re late again,” Martha Kukendahl said when I dragged into her restaurant an hour later, “and those dishes ain’t washing themselves.”
I glanced at the overflowing sink. I wasn’t thinking about work. I was thinking about what my aunt had said. I said, “No, ma’am, they ain’t.”
“Bad enough my boy is sweet on your cousin, I got to have you washing my dishes.” She crossed her arms and glared at me. “If it weren’t for your mama—”
“My mama? What’s my mama ever done for you?”
Martha grabbed my good arm and pulled me into the pantry where she kept all the dry goods. “You mama ain’t never told you what she done?”
“She don’t tell me nothing,” I said. “She hardly ever even looks at me.”
“Well, you ain’t nothing to look at, let me tell you.”
We stared at each other for a moment while she made up her mind.
“Twenty-five years ago your mama stole money from your grandpappy and bought me a bus ticket out of town,” she said. “I come back three years later with a baby, a wedding ring, and a story about a husband who died in a mine collapse.”
That made no sense to me. “Why would my mama buy you a bus ticket?”
“She didn’t do it for me,” Martha said, “She done it for your Aunt Sarah. She’s always done everything for your Aunt Sarah.”
I understood that. I’d lost half my face because my mama was protecting my Aunt Sarah.
“Twenty-five years ago your Uncle Mort—he weren’t your uncle then ’cause you wasn’t born yet—put me in a family way. He wouldn’t have nothing to do with me after ’cause he was sweet on your Aunt Sarah and I was just a drunken one-nighter.”
“She done it to keep your aunt from knowing what kind of man her husband was. Your Aunt Sarah knows what your mama done for me, but she don’t know why your mama done it.”
“That means Goodwin and Alexandria are—”
“Too damn close, but I can’t do nothing about that,” she said. “Now get your ass out there and wash them dishes.”
* * *
I scrubbed dishware until well past closing time. Then I helped Isaiah the Gimp clean the ovens and the stovetops and prepare the kitchen for breakfast the next morning. When we finished, I drove directly to Aunt Sarah’s house. I wanted to tell Alexandria and Zelda what I had learned, and I found my cousins sitting in the kitchen.
Zelda took one look at me and shook her head.
“We can’t do it no more,” Alexandria said as held up her left hand to show me a dime-store engagement ring. “Goodwin just left. I’m getting married.”
“Married?” I asked as I straddled a kitchen chair. “Why?”
“Do you think it’s—?”
“Doesn’t matter,” my cousin insisted. “Goodwin thinks it’s his.”
Before I could say anything else, Alexandria left the kitchen and then left the house. A moment later, Zelda said, “I’ll take care of you.”
“But you’ve never—”
She smiled. “You’ll be my first,” she said, “and I won’t even close my eyes.”
I had so much to tell her, but maybe right then wasn’t the best time. She took my hand and led me upstairs.
Michael Bracken (CrimeFictionWriter.com) is the Edgar and Shamus Award-nominated author of 1,200-plus short stories published in The Best American Mystery Stories, The Best Mystery Stories of the Year, and elsewhere. He is also the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods. He lives and writes in Texas.